Article last updated on February 25, 2022
Running is the easiest way to transform your life. It will improve your fitness. It will make you feel better. You will become a healthier person by running regularly. Becoming a runner will help you find new friends. Make running a habit, and it will change your life.
But why is it so hard to do?
The truth is all change is hard. Humans are wired for inertia, and changing our behaviour is difficult. Drastic changes, like transforming from a sedentary to an active lifestyle, are the most challenging of all.
However, there are strategies and tips you can take advantage of to stack the deck in your favour. Even if you have tried and failed before, do not give up. Read on, and you will learn how to establish a lasting running routine. One that will let you reap the rewards of regular running, and avoid the anguish of yet another failed habit change.
1. Start Small
Realise that making a habit of running is not a matter of all or nothing. While you’re starting out, motivation will be high. You will be tempted to raise the bar, and jump into it with all you’ve got, aspiring to turn your life around and become a new, more athletic version of yourself.
This is the most certain way to set yourself up for failure. What you want to do instead, is to start small. Begin by planning to do only what you’re absolutely certain that you are capable of.
For someone completely new to running, that might mean two weekly walks with a couple of one to five minute running segments. For someone who used to run five times a week, but is struggling to get back to it, it can be three easy runs a week.
Understand that big results come from small changes executed consistently over time.
2. Focus on the Habit
A result-oriented approach can work well in some cases. However, when it comes to establishing a running routine, it is counterproductive. While visions of a fitter, healthier future-you motivates you to start, your day-to-day focus should be the habit.
Wikipedia defines a habit as “a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously”. Once we reach the point where running becomes a habit, the results we covet become inevitable.
But getting there takes time, and only by forming the habit can we set ourselves up for long term success.
3. Get Started
Grete Waitz, the late world champion and nine times winner of the New York Marathon, often felt like going for a run was the last thing she wanted to do. Combining the elite athlete life with a full time teaching job during the dark of Norwegian winter will do that.
As recounted by her husband, Jack Waitz, on the Norwegian podcast I det lange løp, Grete had a trick for dealing with aversion to getting started: If she still didn’t feel like running after 15 minutes, she could walk back home.
In running training, getting started is more than half the job. The likelihood of abandoning a run you’ve started is close to zero. And if you still feel terrible, walking home is probably the right call.
4. Learn From Failure
It will happen.
Life will get in the way of one of your runs.
Perhaps your kids will need you one of designated running nights, or you catch a bad cold. Or, even more likely, one day you simply can’t get it done. No excuses, you simply couldn’t get it done.
Be compassionate towards yourself. Understand that falling short of your own expectations is entirely human. Instead of beating yourself up, use it as an opportunity to learn. Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal wrote in her book The Willpower Instinct:
By observing and being aware of your tendencies to miss a run, you can build strategies to avoid falling into the same traps in the future. But make it a priority not to dwell on your mistakes too long.
5. Stack Wins and Isolate Losses
Good habits have two distinct properties: Consistently doing the thing you want, and minimising the number of times you skip out on doing it.
Habit master James Clear writes that what separates top performers from the rest of us is not that they don’t make mistakes and get off track. Instead, they excel at getting back on track as quickly as possible.
Missing your habit once, argues Clear, has no measurable impact on long-term progress. What matters is that you isolate your losses. Don’t strive for perfection, but rather to be someone who handles adversity well. This allows you to stack your wins, and enjoy the long term benefits of consistently putting in the work.
6. Be Comfortable on the Plateau
Long term progress comes from long term work. No matter what your running goals are, it is easy to become discouraged once you stop noticing progress from week to the next. Running is a thankful endeavour in some ways. You’re likely to experience significant progression as you’re just getting started.
However, once you’ve been at it a while, you will have to get comfortable on the plateau. As the great writer George Leonard wrote in his book Mastery:
“To take the master’s journey, you have to practice diligently, striving to hone your skills, to attain new levels of competence. But while doing so–and this is the inexorable–fact of the journey–you also have to be willing to spend most of your time on a plateau, to keep practicing even when you seem to be getting nowhere.”
For long bouts of time, you must be prepared to experience no noticeable progress. Instead, focus on embracing the journey and developing the habit. Once you do, the results will inevitably follow. In time.
7. Don’t Overcomplicate
By immersing yourself into niche websites — this one included — you can get an impression that running is complicated.
How far should you go?
How fast should you run?
When should you train, and what should you eat?
I’ll let you in on a secret. Running is a really simple endeavor.
All you need to get started is a decent pair of running shoes, and some weather appropriate clothing. Gear up a couple of times per week, run between 30 to 90 minutes at a comfortably strenuous intensity level. If that means walking interspersed with a few 2-5 minutes segments of running in the beginning, that’s fine.
Do this for a few months, and you will be amazed at how much you have progressed. Do it for a few years, and it will change your life.
If you want to dive into the finer details, that’s fine. But beware that those are the details that can provide a 10% progress boost. The first 90% are all about getting out there and doing the work.
8. Meet Other People
Letting yourself down is easy. The bar for standing up a friend, however, is significantly higher. Nobody ditches their running partner because they aren’t quite feeling it.
«Pain shared, my brother, is pain not doubled but halved» writes Neil Gaiman. •••Anansi Boys is one of my all time favourite books. Give it a read if you like fantasy, or just good writing. As it relates to running, this is certainly true. A run that might otherwise have been a slog, can easily turn into an enjoyable experience in the right company.
Leverage the power of community and accountability when establishing a running habit. Team up with other runners. Or, better yet, join a local running group.
9. Reward Yourself
As humans, we tend to read about experiments like Pavlov’s Dogs and conclude that dogs are simple. Which is somewhat ironic, because we are just as much a product of conditioning as Pavlov’s and every other dog is.
Realising this is empowering. It becomes another lever you can utilise to your advantage when establishing a new habit.
Reward yourself to small treats every time you get out for a run. Something extra with dinner, a cup of hot chocolate, or a guilt-free hour in front of the TV, watching your favourite show.
For the more notable milestones, dangle a larger carrot in front of yourself. Splurge on something you really want after you put together three months of consistent running. That can be a weekend trip, a new pair of shoes, or whatever else comes to mind.
This way, you condition yourself to associate running with positive experiences. After a while, when the habit sets, running will become its own reward.
10. Be Smart
Let’s face it: Runners tend to be smart people. That’s not flattery, or even bragging. It is simply an observation. For some unknown reason, however, every point of IQ goes out the window when making running-related decisions.
It should go without saying. But we’re runners, so it doesn’t. And that’s why I’ll close with this point:
- Don’t run when you’re sick or injured.
- Regarding the above point, err on the side of caution.
Being sidelined for weeks, or even months, is the single worst thing that can happen for your running habit. Be smart, and make consistency your #1 priority.
>> Related reading: Tough or Smart? Balancing Running Training and Rest
Follow these tips, and you will be well on your way to making running a habit. And it is a worthwhile effort. Because by making running a staple in your life, you will become a fitter, happier and more confident version of yourself.
One last thing. Do you want to kickstart your training week with motivational content tips on how to structure your training? Sign up for the Run161 newsletter below. You’ll receive an email from us every Monday morning, to help you start the week off right.
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